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Identify the individual character played by Benicio Del Toro in Soderbergh's Traffic, John Travolta in Tarantino's Pulp Fiction, and Salma Hayek in Rodriguez's Desperado. Gently place them into the “Savage Character Converter.” Once the conversion process is complete, you will find all three of those characters now sharing a movie set with a camera in front of them and Oscar-winning filmmaker Oliver Stone sitting in the director’s chair yelling, “Action!” Now, the three characters have changed to a recognizable extent as a result of the conversion; each character has now erupted into a scene-chewing, caricatured version of his or her former self and each actor is having indubitable fun embracing stereotypes and tossing the higher level of seriousness from those previous characters right out the window. These are the major supporting characters of Stone’s newest film, a consciously ridiculous, drug-induced satire called Savages. Now, while this is all happening on one side of the set, take young, “pretty” actors Taylor Kitsch, Blake Lively, and Aaron Johnson and also place them in front of Oliver Stone and his camera. They, too, are starring in Stone’s newest film, but this one is a no-nonsense, action-driven kidnapping caper/revenge thriller. Strangely enough, this movie is also called Savages.
So which of these two movies is Oliver Stone really making? I’ll walk you through it and see if you can figure it out. At the center of this story is Blake Lively as “O,” short for her Shakespearean-derived birth name, Ophelia, who introduces us, via voiceover and intercourse, to Chon (Kitsch), her Iraq war veteran boyfriend and Ben (Johnson), the pro-green “let’s save the world” do-gooder…who’s also her boyfriend (yup, they share an equal place in O’s heart and she screws them both before the ten minute mark). And that “green” that Ben's so in favor of is that smoke-able kind, the best in the world apparently, grown from seeds Chon picked up in Afghanistan during his most recent tour. The two alpha males share a highly lucrative pot business in Laguna Beach and a girlfriend, but reality bites when the cannabis kingpins deny a partnership with the Mexican cartel, led by Elena (Hayek), and brutal enforcer, Lado (Del Toro), kidnaps O. Fumbling to make matters right and get their girl back civilly, the duo engineer double crossings, thanks to crooked DEA agent, Dennis (Travolta), and lead a violent, seemingly unwinnable, retribution against Elena’s cartel while Stone asks of us, “Who is the savage? The foreigners who kidnap and abuse to get what they want, or the slutty rich girl and her degenerate boyfriends who fight to get her back.” But this thematic conundrum takes a back seat to a far more glaring problem.
The three leads look like their having absolutely no fun, while the three veteran supporting actors and hamming it up scene after scene. Del Toro, Travolta, and Hayek are endlessly entertaining as their villainous or morally ambiguous scene-stealers while Kitsch and Johnson are stone-faced, never daring to break dramatic character, and Lively just whimpers and begs her captors for salad and weed. Hayek scowls her pretty face, commands presence by yelling in Spanglish, slaps people who have made her upset, and then cries when her biological children admit that they don’t love her. Del Toro and Travolta turn in the most deliciously engaging performances as they hit every beat expected of a one-dimensional Mexican hitman and a twisted government agent. It’s as if Javier Rodriguez and Vincent Vega decided to switch lifestyles and realized just how much fun could really be had in the other’s line of work. The film’s best scene involves just Del Toro and Travolta face to face as they say one hilarious line after another, but sadly the film never decides to keep it’s tongue in cheek.
It’s as if Stone told the three supporting actors that they were in a very different movie altogether. Johnson and Kitsch’s filmographies are not extensive enough for them to have dropped one of their previous roles through the “Savage Character Converter” and next to their Oscar-nominated character actors they don’t hold a candle. It doesn’t help that Stone’s screenplay, which he co-wrote with Shane Salerno and original novel scribe Don Winslow, sounds like it was written by a group of horny teenage guys that believe partaking in this savage degeneratism would be a valuable future. And our star, Lively, is wasted, literally and figuratively. In The Town she proved that her acting chops had matured past Gossip Girl, but Ben Affleck provided her very little screentime in the final cut. Here, Stone has minimized her to eye candy and the little substance she’s allowed comes in the form of a drowning, groan-inducing voiceover.
It appeared that Savages might have been Oliver Stone’s return to form after missteps like Alexander, W., and the Wall Street sequel. This looked to be in the vein of his wonderfully horrifying comment on media-driven celebrityism, Natural Born Killers, but even with a title like Savages, this new film is shockingly lite in comparison to that 1994 film. The violence is soft and the direction is safe, for Stone standards, the controversy that defined the director’s earlier work is nowhere to be found, the question of what clearly defines a savage gets lost in the shuffle, even when a Webster definition is provided in the dialogue, and the ending is so downright horrible that Stone might as well have filmed himself flipping off the audience.
Other than it’s indelible supporting players, Savages is a another disappointing entry from Oliver Stone, it’s a mess that loves to cut itself down the minute it shows any potential. He straddles the line between serious and satire without any cohesion. Still, Savages manages to be awfully watchable, which it seems has become Stone’s new standard of filmmaking.
So what kind of film is Oliver Stone trying to make? Your guess is as good as mine.
4 out of 10